From the thirty scenes with stūpas in them, three thematic categories have emerged from their content. The first category is clearly distinguishable based on the number of scenes and repetition. Table 2.5 from the second chapter outlines where and how many times the Mānushi Buddha scenes occur. However, to reiterate, a proper Mānushi Buddha (Image 4.3) scene must contain seven elements, a combination of trees and stūpas. The Mānushi Buddhas are the earthly Buddhas, six of which are the immediate predecessors to Gautama. The scenes may consist of alternating elements, such as tree, stūpa, tree, etc., or of exclusively all trees. All of the Mānushi Buddha scenes at Sāñcī with stūpas are on the outer face of the top architraves of each of the four toraṇas. In short, there are six Mānushi Buddha scenes containing sixteen stūpas in those scenes.
Image 4.3: South gateway Mānushi Buddha scene with trees, people, and mythological creatures
The next thematic type that is identifiable is the parinirvāṇa (Image 4.4). While there are no absolutely clear indicators of a parinirvāṇa scene, other than the idea that a stūpa represents a reliquary which may enshrine relics or ashes of the Buddha, we may deduce parinirvāṇa scenes based on context. In several locations along the gateways there is a consistent pattern of major well-known events from the Buddha’s biography, such as the Enlightenment, First Sermon, or Birth. Continuing in this pattern, for instance, on the outside face of the south gateway, a stūpa appears on the die between the middle and lower architraves on the west side. On the direct opposite die is a birth scene. And on the die above that, between the middle and top architraves, is a Bodhi Tree symbolizing the enlightenment of Gautama. Directly below the said stūpa, below the false capital, is a dharmacakra on a pillar, symbolizing the First Sermon at Sarnath. It seems likely, then, that this stūpa has something to do with the parinirvāṇa. Using contextual criteria, I have identified at least three such stūpas which are representing the parinirvāṇa at Kuśinagara
Image 4.4: Parinirvāṇa scene from the south gateway
The last thematic type consists of legendary or historical scenes from Buddhist literature. These scenes typically take place after the parinirvāṇa of the Buddha and are related to the dissemination of Buddhism or important turning points in Buddhist history. The first and most important of these scenes is the previously described Rāmagrāma scene. On the middle architrave, outside face of the south toraṇa, it seems to be the character of Aśoka who is approaching the Rāmagrāma stūpa (Image 4.5) with the intention of opening it to obtain its relics for the sake of splitting them up to create more stūpas. Of course, as aforementioned in chapter 2, nāgas and nāginīs guarded and worshipped the stūpa and prevented Aśoka’s intended actions.
Image 4.5: A legend scene from the south gateway